Thursday, July 12, 2007

Mario Kart Wii

Street Fighter 2 might be the undisputed champion of SNES games, but if anything comes close it's Super Mario Kart — especially the dizzying mayhem of two player Battle Mode. I can't wait for the upcoming Wii version, which has just been announced at E3 for release in early 2008.



It'll be bundled with a wireless steering wheel and include support for online multiplayer. Start practising your banana skin + red shell combos now!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Amiga Retro Showreel Spectacular

A great compilation of clips from some classic Amiga games.

I recognised these: It Came From The Desert, Kick Off, Black Crypt, Golden Axe, IK+, Lemmings, Another World, Cadaver, R-Type, Loom, Ikari Warriors, Lotus Esprit Turbo Challenge, Marble Madness, Moonstone, Shadow of the Beast, Wings, Turrican II, Silkworm, Shinobi, North and South, Rainbow Islands, Sim City

There are quite a few others I don't remember, luckily there's a full run down at the end.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Bring the beat back

State of the Art


Jesus on E's

Monday, July 2, 2007

It insists upon itself

I finally got around to watching indie sci-fi thriller Primer last night, after a friend recommended it about a year ago. It's basically about a couple of engineers who accidentally invent a time machine, and the plot unwinds predictably thereafter. It's the same old story.

The first of the guys, Abe, turns on the machine, which is a necessary step for anyone to jump back to that particular point in time. This is also the moment that his time-travelling double future self could re-emerge from the machine, so he needs to set a timer for the machine to start automatically after a fifteen minute delay. He'd then have time to escape and not risk bumping into his future double, and risk polluting the respective timelines with causal anomalies.

He then waits six hours before entering the time-travel box, and starts travelling back in time at 'normal' (but reverse) velocity, and after six hours he (Abe2) is back at the point where the timer originally started the machine. His other self (Abe1) is hiding in a hotel room, beginning his six hour wait before using the time machine. After six hours Abe1 gets into the box, again, and gets stuck in a time loop, allowing Abe2 to continue a single Abe future timeline.

However, it's not all as straightforward as that. Unknown to the audience until later in the film, Abe had built a secret 'fail-safe' time machine the day before and started it running, giving someone the opportunity to go back in time even further, just in case they had to prevent the second box being built.

At this point I went to make a cup of tea and found a Milo bar in the cupboard. They were delicious and complemented each other perfectly. There were then some other time travel shenanigans involving Abe, and possibly the other guy Aaron, and they used the machine to get prescient knowledge of sports and stock results to make some money, and explore themes of time travel paradox and existentialism.

You don't find this out until the last twenty minutes, but Aaron had actually discovered the secret fail-safe machine and used it travel back in time to before the first other box was built. He took the first time machine with him in the box, back to when the first fail-safe box was turned on. Luckily he doesn't bump into Abe because he turned on the machine using a timer, to avoid bumping into himself.

Even though most of the plot and its nine separate timelines aren't shown explicitly and need to be inferred from other parts of the story, it's perhaps a bit unfair of some critics to label the film a 'wilfully pretentious exercise in obfuscation'. It's certainly abstruse and mostly incomprehensible, but that's the appeal. It goes to amazing lengths to avoid any exposition whatsoever.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

There's a party in my browser and everyone's invited

For me, tracing and debugging HTTP traffic has always been a fun-packed group activity, like playing SingStar or having a barbeque. As soon as I fire off a web request, my work colleagues immediately rush over to marvel at the heady stream of status codes, headers, cookies, caching directives, compression, encryption and performance metrics. They just can't get enough.

The HttpWatch website captures the scene perfectly.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Play! A Video Game Symphony

Went to this amazing concert, PLAY! A Video Game Symphony at Sydney Opera House last Saturday — massive screens displayed scenes from video games, accompanied by a live orchestra soundtrack. Although every score was great, the highlight for me was probably a theme from Shenmue, closely followed by Mario. Can't wait for the CD.

This video is Mario from the show performed in Stockholm.

Finales

Once again, it's with a tinge of sadness that we bring out the cardboard box, fill it with soft straw, and lay down our favourite TV shows to hibernate through the cold months — Desperate Housewives, 24, Lost and Heroes, all snuggled together for a well deserved rest. Some, though, deserve it more than others.

Desperate Housewives was relentlessly sarcastic, original and funny, with a brilliantly shocking season finale. 24 was, well, a bit average this year. After six seasons it seems to be struggling to meet its own very high standards, but is still enjoyable. Next season, please: no more kidnapping.

It's Lost and Heroes, however, that I'd like look at in a bit more depth. The contrast between them was striking, especially in the final few episodes. As Lost picked up momentum and sprinted to an explosive finale, so Heroes ran out of breath and collapsed with an asthmatic whimper.

Heroes was especially disappointing given how well it all began, compulsory viewing with a great concept, some interesting characters and solid storyline. But somehow it never quite managed to develop any of these beyond my lowest expectations, and as time went on it became more obvious that it was destined to disappoint. Quality declined steadily, then finally slumped as it struggled to conclude the main story, and reconcile the sub-plots into something resembling sense.

What should've been a gripping climax was instead predictable and a bit confused. The anticipated showdown between Peter Petrelli and Sylar was a huge let down, ending up — shock-horror! — with Hiro impaling the amalgamated anti-hero, just as predicted in the comic. Wouldn't it have been better for a berserk zombie Isaac Mendez to burst from the shadows in a VW camper van, and unexpectedly mow Sylar down? Clearly yes, likewise anything else remotely entertaining.

Both Lost and Heroes gave us a teasing glimpse of next season. Lost's staple narrative, the character flashback, finally cashes-in the long con by exploiting our familiarity to disguise a gripping flash-forward. We're left with the revelation that Jack and Kate somehow escape The Island, eagerly opening up a whole new chapter of intrigue.

Heroes, on the other hand, ended like a bad episode of Quantum Leap, randomly dropping Hiro into 17th century feudal Japan, vulnerable before charging ranks of angry samurai and saved from certain death by a convenient solar eclipse. For once I could empathise, I just as disoriented. As Sam Beckett would've said, "Oh, boy..."

Heroes seems outclassed in so many ways. Lost's rich ensemble of characters have carefully crafted backstories and complex ongoing relationships, whereas the Heroes are comparatively hollow, cartoonish and connected through convenient contrivances. When Lost writers bump off a major character I'm genuinely shocked, but after Heroes' only significant dispatch, Isaac Mendez, I was neither surprised nor particularly bothered — it was difficult to care about a character so two dimensional. Compare that with Charlie's ultimate act of selflessness and calm acceptance of inescapable destiny in The Looking Glass, while Claire and Aaron waited hopelessly for their hero to return.

Both Lost and Heroes explore themes of precognition and determinism versus free will. "Save the cheerleader, save the world", is the seemingly profound proclamation that underlies the collective destinies of the Heroes. Can they escape a fate of thermonuclear annihilation, or are they free to avert disaster? Coupled with some confused examination of time-travel and grandfather paradox, that's about as deep as it gets.

It's weak compared to Lost's treatment of the same. Charlie, Desmond and Locke each tackle issues of individual fate, meanwhile all humanity is seemingly condemned to extinction, subject to the predictions of an intractable doomsday equation. How do the destinies of individuals, inevitable or otherwise, affect the fate of humanity? Are they correlated? Lost doesn't give us the answers, and perhaps never will, but it provokes irresistible curiosity and debate.

The Lost storyline is a maze of cause and effect, character connections, recurring themes, allegory and symbolism; yet somehow they manage to keep it all fairly coherent. Heroes overreaches by having characters with abilities to turn invisible, fly, heal, mind read, predict future, time-travel and walk through walls — there are too many gaping plot holes for any given situation: why didn't he just ...fly away? ...or teleport? ...or predict that? ...or heal himself?

Let's hope next year Heroes gets itself back on track, maybe by introducing a strong new character from the Heroes: Origins mini-series, or by pushing some of the better minor characters, like Christopher Eccleston's brilliant Claude Rains — the crazy invisible pigeon fancier.

Let's also hope that Lost hasn't "jumped the shark", or "escaped from Fox River", as I now like to say.

Known unknowns

Only another 266 days of hollow meaningless existence before Lost returns with season 4. In the meantime, there seem to be a few good books worth a read: Finding Lost: The Unofficial Guide and, in particular Living Lost: Why We're All Stuck on the Island by The Always Interesting J. Wood. (Yes, that is his full name.)

Not unlike in the show itself, we're hearing plenty of mysterious whispering from fans, producers and crackpot theorists; none of which gives much away but are interesting nevertheless. To take the Rumsfeldian view,

"...we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don't know we don't know."
So how about some of those known unknowns that we're hoping will become known knowns by the end of next season? From reliable sources, like interviews and podcasts with the producers, it seems likely that (not before time) we'll discover much more about: tetchy spectre Jacob, who's been compared in significance with the wrinkly Emperor from Star Wars; Michael and Walt, although who really cares about the former; Libby, the mentalist boat-lender; Danielle Rousseau, deranged pyromaniac for hire; Penny, who we're told is an important character in the overarching story; and finally, four-toed colossus, who might help unravel some history and mythology behind the The Island.

Which mystery would you most like to see explained in season 4?

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Big week for new tech

Remember five years ago when Minority Report came out, and everyone wondered how long it'd be before the holographic touch screens would enter the commercial mainstream? Well, it turns out the Microsoft Research team were already on the case, and now, six years later, they're ready to release the first Microsoft Surface device — and it looks awesome. The custom software runs on Vista, and already looks great, but I wonder if we'll ever see it running BumpTop too?

The opposing superpower Google also has a revolutionary new release this week, with a technology preview of Google Gears, a set of APIs that will help allow web-applications to run offline. Does this aggressive move mean Google are looking to tackle Microsoft head-on in the desktop application market? Or at least offer a technology framework for other providers to try? As web technologies continue to converge with their desktop counterparts, it'll be interesting to see what happens over the next few years.

Jumped up firework display

After watching Spider-Man 3 at the weekend, I'm starting to lose hope that Hollywood will ever stop churning out shameless toy adverts instead of anything remotely imaginative, insightful or interesting. Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst shouldn't be allowed to act. Their on-screen chemistry is painfully unconvincing, and their characters even less believable than the substandard CGI effects.

I loved the original cartoon Spider-Man, so to see it butchered like this is tragic.

Bread and circuses

How ironic that TV franchise "Big Brother" is itself a veritable example of modern prolefeed. Every spring, like an irradicable weed, it re-sprouts to entangle its noxious vines around pop culture and burrow into the minds of the terminally bored, while swarms of cheap parasitic spin-offs feed insatiable viewers with endless hours of tenuous analysis and editorial.

For want of any other prospects, the incarcerated stereotypes will gamble their dignities against the dubious opportunity of becoming a minor celebrity. They will tiresomely demonstrate to a nation their abrasive backbiting personalities, while colluding in a morally unpleasant process of pseudo-democratic social Darwinism.

Meanwhile, thousands of financially dyslexic consumers will devotedly reach for their £500 Nokias, and further swell broadcaster profits by sending premium-rate text messages to express their frivolous opinions.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Miniature Heroes

According to NBC, Tina Turner was wrong — we do need another hero. So they've lined up another six to feature in a new Heroes spin-off called Heroes: Origins, to run during the lengthy gap between seasons of the main show.

Each episode will tell the story behind a new super-powered weirdo, and viewers will be invited to vote one them into the main story. So if next season's rubbish, they can blame the general public.

Lost and The Second Law of Cryptodynamics

I might've discovered a new phenomenon to help explain the Lost storyline, I'll call it the second law of cryptodynamics. At the start of season one, the zero entropy point, we were in confusion equilibrium, nothing weird had happened and there was nothing mysterious to be explained. As the story progresses, so does the measure of disorder and plot entanglement, which over time takes us irreversibly further from a coherent explanation. The consistent flow of new mysteries dissipates the evidence for any possible conclusion, until the story eventually reaches a final state of heat death, a maximum disorder of facts and theories that can't possibly sustain a rational resolution.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Don't be silly, Toto - scarecrows don't talk

(Contains Lost Season 3 Spoilers)

So, it turns out Jacob is definitely the schizophrenic hallucination of a deceitful repressed orphan; a skittish trans-dimensional apparition; a scruffy time traveller suffering quantum fluctuation; a cleverly staged trick; or something else entirely. Glad they cleared that up for us.

Despite this confounding mess, the Man Behind the Curtain did offer a few straight-edged pieces to start the Jacob jigsaw. Here's my speculation of what happened.

Jacob is probably real in some sense. By that, I mean he's not just an imaginary spook in some dramatic hoax, but he's not necessarily corporal like Ben and Locke. The dilapidated old shack is Jacob's prison, and Ben needs to keep it that way to maintain his authority over Jacob. Although Ben can perceive Jacob, he knows Locke can't see anything and starts a fictitious one-sided argument. We know Ben is an expert actor from his as performance as fake Henry Gale.

As soon as Locke shines his torch, Jacob sees an opportunity and tries to escape. Notice how Ben tries to pin Jacob back in the chair before Locke scarpers. Then there's the delay before Ben appears at the door, maybe enough time for him to subdue Jacob. There's also the mysterious line of dusty ash, perhaps an impenetrable perimiter to contain Jacob; and the appeal to Locke to "Help Me".

But why would Ben take Locke there in the first place? Perhaps to see if Locke is special enough perceive Jacob? Ben seemed pretty upset when he discoverd Jacob spoke to Locke, maybe slightly jealous. Nevertheless, Ben had to shoot Locke, or otherwise risk being exposed as a fraud, and I think Alex knew something about this danger, and tried to forearm Locke. Locke's already demonstrated an unnatural ability to heal, so I doubt he's going to the giant box factory in the sky just yet.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Hadouken!

Some lame geeks believe World of Warcraft is the greatest video game ever made. Others argue between plumbers, hedgehogs and angry theoretical physicists called Gordon. But they're all very wrong.

And they've been consistently wrong since 1991, when Capcom unleashed their masterpiece, Street Fighter II. It's not enough to say it was good, excellent or even superb. SF2 was, without exaggeration, completely perfect.

Every detail was flawlessly aligned, the smooth 2D animation, bouncy music, precisely balanced characters, intuitive controls, sneaky AI, satisfying special moves and devastating combos.

Not content spending all my 50 pences playing it at the arcade, I bought a SNES and the Official Strategy Guide book so I could practice my Dragon Punching without interruption from the comfort of home. Since then I've played many different arcade conversions, but still none can match the fidelity of the excellent SNES original.

So how do you improve on perfection?

Take the best version, Super Street Fighter II Turbo, and painstakingly redraw it, pixel-for-pixel, in high resolution for modern seventh-generation consoles like PS3 and Xbox 360. Although it's difficult to measure coolness accurately, I'm pretty confident this super-powered version will be at least 4.5 times cooler than the original.

In what's got to be the most impressive game title of the franchise yet, Capcom have dubbed it Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix.

And if that's not exciting enough, there's also a rumour going around about a new Street Fighter II movie in the works for 2008, possibly with a main character of Chun-Li played by Jessica Biel. At least it can't be any worse than the appalling previous attempt starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Kylie Minogue.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Lost Dénouement

It's nice that the guys at Lost are keeping up-to-date with my blog. Following my speculation yesterday about the forthcoming confirmation of an immutable finish date, ABC announced today that the plot will unravel inexorably towards a satisfying conclusion over exactly 48 more episodes, ending for good in 2010. The remaining three seasons will be split into 16 episodes, each running consecutively without any annoying intra-season breaks.

Executive Producer Damon Lindelof has indicated that, "there will be no extensions ... once you begin to see where we're going, I think the idea of sequels and spin-offs will completely go away".

No chance of a Hurley sitcom then?

More info:
ABC Says Only 48 More Episodes of "Lost"
Beginning of End for Lost

Monday, May 7, 2007

That's an interesting question, Carlton

(Contains Lost Season 3 Spoilers)

No matter how lost the Losties are, I'm sure they're nowhere near as lost as I am. Season three has been a bit frustrating at times because of the focus on background and character development rather than progressing the main story arc, especially given how many questions still remain unanswered.

Even the mysteries that have been resolved seem to perpetuate a whole new confusing web of puzzles to tangle my already confused mind.

That said, things are really picking up momentum again now and it seems we're heading towards a spectacular finale. Next week's episode features the flashback I've been waiting for, the unfathomable Ben. Just who is this strange manipulative little man, what motivates him, what's he doing on Island and is he as evil as he seems?

It's been hinted that Ben answers to the authority of The Man Behind the Curtain, the eponym of next week's episode, who is possibly a man named Jacob. These revelations should hopefully tell us more about DHARMA and their relationship with The Others and The Island.

After becoming slightly disillusioned with the show this season, it was a huge relief to hear (on the official podcast) that the producers will soon be announcing a definite end date, by when the story will be concluded properly. I don't think I could bear them spinning it out over 12 tortuous seasons. People are guessing it'll be around five or six, which sounds good to me.

It was also interesting to hear the producers reveal that none of the show's explanations will be too far-fetched, but instead based on the level of reality you might find in a Michael Crichton novel. So hopefully there'll be a cunning and credible resolution, with a sci-fi twist, rather than some improbable or contrived nonsense.

As for the season finale, I can't wait to see what twists and cliffhangers we'll be left with. Whatever happens, it should be explosive, at least if Danielle has her way.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Extreme Wedgie

Further to CMUs post about open-mindedness on ID.

Wouldn't it be fantastic if Intelligent Design turned out to be right and Darwinism wrong? I'd be great if someone presented convincing evidence for a supernatural or extra-terrestrial creator. How cool would that be? What would be the implications on metaphysics and philosophy? What is it made of, where did it come from, what designed it or how did it evolve, how does it apply its designs to living organisms, does it have free will? It'd be fascinating, and a huge advance in our understanding of the universe.

But I don't find the arguments for ID convincing. I've no personal objection to the idea, it just don't think it holds up to scrutiny, and there's a better alternative explanation of random mutation with natural selection. I'm also put off the idea by the suspicious motivations behind some of its proponents. It doesn't seem to have been presented to help us better understand how stuff works, but instead to push a political and moral agenda, which seems to undermine its credibility.

I'd be happy to be proved wrong.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Thought-o-matic

Thinking about stuff can be an exhausting and unnecessary diversion from reality TV. Lucky for me, my brain has a cheat-mode that lets me make decisions without having to get bogged down with confusing reasoning or so called facts. I call it thought-o-matic, because it's to do with thought and the suffix -o-matic implies automatic, so my brilliant neologism describes automated thought, or thought without effort.

I like the word because it works on so many levels. I invented it not by researching ancient Greek linguistic roots and applying them to form new words, that's too much like hard work. I just lifted the colloquial -o-matic straight from pop culture (which in turn stole it from lazy American entrepreneurs of the 1940s and 50s) then I glued it onto my original thought concept. The important thing is I didn't have to do any difficult thinking, so thought-o-matic is itself a product of thought-o-mation. Self-describing, strangely loopy, and a perfect antidote to thoughtful consideration.

I see thought-o-matic as the grubby scrounging layabout of the decision making family, in order of respectability:

  • Rational evaluation
  • Common sense
  • Intuition
  • Random decision
  • Thought-o-matic
Rational evaluation heads the family because it uses logical reasoning based on facts supported by strong evidence. You can't argue with that. Or so you'd think. Common sense can be reliable because it's often based on historical learning, group intelligence or innate evolutionary psychology. Same thing with intuition, a subconscious reasoning process that seems to produce pretty good results. The boundaries are fuzzy, but you get the general idea.

Thought-o-matic is subtly different. It's when you know you should think about something properly but can't be bothered. You unquestioningly accept the views or beliefs of others because it's so much easier than forming your own. If you come across a fact that contradicts your opinions then you must ignore it, and not waste valuable crotch-scratching-time reconciling new information (see confirmation-bias). Choose the outcome with the greatest short-time benefits, preferably for yourself.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Linksplurge #1

Friday, April 13, 2007

How to save 33% on your coffee

Every morning, on the way to work, I buy a large coffee for $3. The coffee shop runs a loyalty card scheme to retain my custom in exchange for free drinks. It works like this:

1. Buy 9 coffees ($27) - get one free
2. Buy another 8 coffees $24) - get one free
3. Buy another 7 coffees ($21) - get one free
4. Buy another 6 coffees ($18) - get one free
5. Repeat again from step 1.

By spending $90 ($27 + $24 + $21 + $18) on coffee I get four drinks free, worth $12. Without the scheme, the total 34 drinks would cost me $102, so with my free coffees I make an overall saving of 12%. Pretty good, but still a lot to spend of coffee, especially when I can make a cup of tea at work for nothing.

How can I maximise my value for money?

Medium coffees are $2.40 and aren't much smaller, they contain the same amount of coffee but slightly less milk. What if I only buy medium coffees, but take a large one as my free drink? Then how much do I save?

Cost: 30 x $2.40 = $72
Free: 4 x $3 = $12
Total value: $84
Saving: 14%

Not bad, every little helps. The next step is coffee for friends. There are two other people in my office who need a morning caffeine hit, so I offer to pick up their drinks on my way in, but keep using my loyalty card. So now I get more free drinks without spending as much:

X = My coffee, 0 = Friends' coffee

XOOXOOXOO - 1 free
XOOXOOXO - 1 free
OXOOXOO - 1 free
XOOXOO - 1 free

Combining this with the previous strategy, for every ten medium coffees I buy, I now get four large for free.

Cost: 10 x $2.40 = $24
Free: 4 x $3 = $12
Total value = $36
Saving = 33%

I save a load of money on my coffee, the barista gets my regular trade, and my friends get their coffee delivered. Everyone's a winner. (But I still hope none of them finds out.)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Economics of a Software Developer

This is all obvious stuff, but it's interesting to break it down into basic principles. As a software developer, I make money by supplying a product or service in exchange for cash. I build someone a website, they pay me money. I'm able to do this because there are plenty of companies who want websites, which creates demand for my skills. Demand increases when there are more companies and fewer developers, then I can become a scarce resource and charge proportionately more for my services.

It's a standard way to make money in a competitive free market. I studied software engineering partly because it was a growing industry with increasing demand for skills. So did lots of other people, for similar reasons, which increases supply to meet new demand. Now there are loads of companies wanting websites, and developers willing to build them, so lots get built, mostly at a fair market price. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement (note for middle managers: "win-win situation").

The market controls what developers can earn, and there's not too much we can do about it. That is, unless someone upsets the equilibrium by either creating more demand or reducing supply. Hmmm...

One option would be to artificially shift the web market into a new apparent niche. Someone could create an new generation of products and services that are available from only a few specialized providers. Business managers can read the press releases (carefully reworked as objective articles by trade magazine journalists) and the hype would be convincing. Customers don't need to completely understand the niche - SOA, Web 2.0, OOP, XML, WAP - but they're now too frightened their competitors will get in first. All you need is to repackage and rebrand existing trends and technologies, and present them as something new. The result is that some developers can now charge much more because everyone wants new generation products, and not many suppliers can yet provide them.

Looking at it from the other angle, another slightly sneaky option is to throttle supply. Maybe by persuading other developers in a particular market to specialise in other technology. If my competition is saturated by, say, .NET developers, then I could try convincing them that .NET is becoming obsolete and they should move into something else. If someone were particularly Machiavellian enterprising then they might post fictional competing job adverts with large salaries, alongside some comparable .NET jobs with stingy pay. Propaganda pushes competitors out of the market and demand goes up again.